The Wall Street Journal reports that application developers, both mobile and desktop, are busy rummaging through the email of thousands and thousands of users with free accounts from Gmail, Yahoo, and Microsoft. The Journal rightfully chastises the companies involved for allowing this to happen then proceeds to tell us why it's happening: because we said they could.

Of course developers (and worse, think of that last crummy app you installed that just spammed trash at you until you deleted it) are going to access your account when they asked you if they could and you said yes. It's also not something new and not something isolated to any particular service provider. But it is predatory behavior and one of those things that should cause heads to roll.

It's easy to blame the user. It's also lazy and lets the real culprit get away with it.

Here's what's going on: you see an app or browser extension or something you can install and give it access to your email account so it can do wonderful things like price match airline tickets or help you build out a marketing mail list or something else that sounds like a good idea. You understand that this service will need to see the email that comes to your inbox, because how else will it know you're reserving two tickets to Jamaica for a nice vacation? Everything sounds nice and tidy, but most people never stop to think that giving an app's developers access to your inbox means they can see what's inside your inbox.

The companies called out by the Journal, like Return Path, are telling you in advance what they need to do then getting explicit permission for it by adding a line into the terms and agreements we need to understand before we install the service. The companies that give you free email service are only letting companies you have authorized sift through your mail. It sounds like a blameless situation that's entirely our fault and we should have known better. But it's still sad that it is allowed to happen.

I can't undo it. I can make sure you know what the WSJ is talking about and angrily type words late on a Monday night, but I can't make it go away. But you can.

  • Visit the account settings page where you can see what apps have access to your account.
  • Find the section of the page labeled "Apps with access to your account" or something very similar. For Gmail, it is the very top item.
  • Go through the list and revoke permissions for any app you do not want accessing your mail.
  • Go through it a second time and make sure you want the apps that are left to have access to the parts of your account that are listed.

And remember, always read what the thing you are installing or signing up for can do, and never trust anyone when it comes to decisions about your privacy.